Don’t call Heather Erickson a glasshole.
Yes, that’s Google Glass on her frames. But she’s not using it to check her Facebook, dictate messages, or capture a no-hands video while riding a roller coaster. Erickson is a 30-year-old factory worker in rural Jackson, Minnesota. For her, Glass is not a hip way to hang apps in front of her eyeballs, but a tool—as much a tool as her power wrenches. It walks her through her shifts at Station 50 on the factory floor, where she builds motors for tractors.
No one at Erickson’s factory is concerned that the consumer version of Glass, after an initial burst of media glory, was condemned for bugginess and creepiness, then ushered into a gadget version of the Bardo. The original Glass designers had starry-eyed visions of masses blissfully living their lives in tandem with a wraparound frame and a tiny computer screen hovering over their eye. But the dream quickly gave way to disillusionment as early adopters found that it delivered less than it promised—and users became the target of shaming from outsiders concerned about privacy. Within three years, Alphabet (the parent company of Google and its sister company, the “moonshot factory” called X) had given up Glass for good—or so people assumed.
What they didn’t know was that Alphabet was commissioning a small group to develop a version for the workplace. The team lives in Alphabet's X division, where Glass was first developed as a passion project of Google cofounder Sergey Brin. Now the focus was on making a practical workplace tool that saves time and money. Announced today, it is called Glass Enterprise Edition.
That’s what Erickson wears every day. She works for AGCO, an agricultural equipment manufacturer that is an early adopter of Glass EE. For about two years, Glass EE has been quietly in use in dozens of workplaces, slipping under the radar of gadget bloggers, analysts, and self-appointed futurists. Yes, the population of those using the vaunted consumer version of Glass has dwindled, tired of being driven out of lounges by cocktail-fork-wielding patrons fearing unwelcome YouTube cameos. Meanwhile, Alphabet has been selling hundreds of units of EE, an improved version of the product that originally shipped in a so-called Explorer Edition in 2013. Companies testing EE—including giants like GE, Boeing, DHL, and Volkswagen—have measured huge gains in productivity and noticeable improvements in quality. What started as pilot projects are now morphing into plans for widespread adoption in these corporations. Other businesses, like medical practices, are introducing Enterprise Edition in their workplaces to transform previously cumbersome tasks.
The difference between the original Glass and the Enterprise edition could be summarized neatly by two images. The first is the iconic photo of Brin alongside designer Diane von Furstenberg at a fashion show, both wearing the tell-tale wraparound headband with display stub. The second image is what I saw at the factory where Erickson works, just above the Iowa state line and 90 miles from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Workers at each station on the tractor assembly line—sporting eyewear that doesn’t look much different from the safety frames required by OSHA—begin their tasks by saying, “OK, Glass, Proceed.” When they go home, they leave their glasses behind.
A workplace version is quite a shift for one of the most hyped products in Google’s history. Glass first dropped into public consciousness five years ago as the featured product of Google’s big I/O conference in 2012. Literally dropped, as thousands of attendees watched a free fall from the point of view of a team of Glass-equipped skydivers hurtling toward the roof of San Francisco’s Moscone Center. The elaborately planned stunt set the tone for the launch of a product that was nowhere near ready for reliable use when it was released a year later. Google acknowledged that by calling early buyers “Explorers”—virtual Shackletons who knew they were venturing into a treacherous realm. Still, first impressions were rhapsodic: Time declared Glass one of the best products of the year, and everybody from Prince Charles to Beyoncé clamored to try it out.
But soon Glass's failings became apparent. It was buggy, it felt awkward, and it really didn’t have a clear function. Then came a backlash from people interacting with Glass users, who worried that their private moments would be captured by stealthily recorded video. Establishments began banning Glass. The project simply wasn’t working.
“When we originally built Glass, the work we did on the technology front was very strong, and starting the Explorer program was the right thing to do to learn about how people used the product,” says Astro Teller, who runs the X division. “Where we got a little off track was trying to jump all the way to the consumer applications.” He pauses. “We got more than a little off track.”
In time, Glass jumped the track entirely, going dark in January 2015. Its website read, “Thanks for exploring with us”—and that seemed to be the finale, even as the company also promised, “The journey doesn’t end here.”
In fact, a different journey had already begun. Even as the sound of breaking Glass was reverberating in the tech press, some early adopters were discovering that Glass was a powerful solution to a problem vexing the workplace. Workers who need real-time information—and both hands free—were natural beneficiaries of what Glass had to offer, even if Google hadn’t figured that out yet.
It’s a choice between an immersive form of augmented reality, which overlays digital information on top of the real world, and an alternative that lets workers shift between the virtual and the actual. Some companies in the enterprise sector have been singing the praises of “mixed reality” helmets that overlay graphics and information onto a camera-captured display of the real world. But these are costly, bulky, and not well suited for routine tasks on a factory floor. In cases when all a worker needs is real-time access to information, a big helmet that takes over your entire field of vision is overkill. Smart glasses are a lightweight version of augmented reality—some people call this “assisted reality”—offering a computer display that one could view simply by shifting one’s gaze and taking in the rest of the world as it is. It’s cheaper and more comfortable than going full immersive.
Without direction from Google, these companies began to purchase Explorer Edition units of Glass and use them with custom software to tackle specific tasks for their corporate customers. And Google noticed.
“We talked to all of our explorers and we realized that the enterprise space had a lot of legs,” says Jay Kothari, who now is project lead on the Glass enterprise team. Also noticing was Brin himself, who, according to Teller, reported the interest from corporations and suggested that a dedicated team might work on a specialized version of Glass to serve them. In April 2014, Google started a “Glass at Work” program that highlighted some of the early developers. And that year when a few people from X visited Boeing, which was testing Glass, they reported that their minds were blown by a side-by-side comparison of workers doing intricate wire-framing work with Glass’s help. It was like the difference between putting together Ikea furniture with those cryptic instructions somewhere across the room and doing it with real-time guidance from someone who’d constructed a million Billys and Poängs.
The company decided to work on a version of Glass that would be totally separate from the consumer version. Then came the tricky part of where that team might live. Glass had supposedly “graduated” from X, but Alphabet put the Enterprise team back there. One reason was that an ace engineer named Ivo Stivoric was now a senior director at X. Stivoric had been steeped in wearables for almost two decades, co-heading a lab at Carnegie Mellon and cofounding a company called BodyMedia that was bought by Jawbone. “He literally was doing this 20 years ago,” says Teller. Also, the head of X’s rapid evaluation team, Rich DeVaul, had a background in wearables.
The eventual customers for this new version—from small businesses to huge corporations—had already been dealing with independent startups that adapted Glass for specific workplaces. The Glass team at X formalized that structure, creating an ecosystem that would support “solution partners” who would work with the Glass Enterprise team directly, including buying the actual devices from Alphabet. The partners would then sell the complete hardware and software package to corporate customers. The main task of the Enterprise team in X was creating a new model of Glass itself, improved for the rigors of the workplace and optimized with new features that the customers were clamoring for. In January 2015, they began shipping the resulting Enterprise Edition to the solution partners. Perhaps because of the unhealed wounds of the consumer fiasco, Google asked customers not to reveal the existence of EE. (Any pictures of their use of Glass had to show them using the Explorer Edition.)
Those still using the original Explorer Edition will explode with envy when they see the Enterprise Edition. For starters, it makes the technology completely accessible for those who wear prescription lenses. The camera button, which sits at the hinge of the frame, does double duty as a release switch to remove the electronics part of unit (called the Glass Pod) from the frame. You can then connect it to safety glasses for the factory floor—EE now offers OSHA-certified safety shields—or frames that look like regular eyewear. (A former division of 3M has been manufacturing these specially for Enterprise Edition; if EE catches on, one might expect other frame vendors, from Warby Parker to Ray-Ban, to develop their own versions.) “We did a lot of work to lighten the weight of the frames to compensate for the additional weight [of the Pod],” says Kothari. “So the overall package with Glass and the frames itself actually comes out to be the average weight of regular glasses.”
Other improvements include beefed-up networking—not only faster and more reliable wifi, but also adherence to more rigorous security standards—and a faster processor as well. The battery life has been extended—essential for those who want to work through a complete eight-hour shift without recharging. (More intense usage, like constant streaming, still calls for an external battery.) The camera was upgraded from five megapixels to eight. And for the first time, a green light goes on when video is being recorded. (Inoculation against Glasshole-dom!)
“It looks very similar to original Glass but improves on every aspect of it,” says Brian Ballard, CEO of Upskill, one of the most prolific of the so-called solution providers. “They had seen how we were using it, and rethought everything—how you charge it, fold it up, prevent sweating, wifi coverage.” Ballard says that the new version was essential for the pilot programs his big customers were running to become fully integrated into the workflow. “For our market we desperately needed a product with a brand like Google behind it. Our customers don’t buy things from Kickstarter.”
Today’s announcement, which frees corporate users from keeping silent about the EE edition and opens it up to countless more businesses, is a milestone in the resurrection of a technology left for dead. “This isn't an experiment,” says Kothari. “It was an experiment three years ago. Now we are in full-on production with our customers and with our partners.”
Yep. Glass is back.
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